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Senate in Search of DACA Fix That Can Get 60 votes; Pence Comments on Rob Porter Controversies; VA Secretary Slammed For 2017 European Trip. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 14, 2018 - 12:30   ET


[12:33:25] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. The free-wheeling, open-ended immigration debate we were promised in the senate so far is anything but. That could change today. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona promises a bipartisan group of lawmakers will produce their idea, their plan today, but as we wait, a bit skeptically to see if that makes a difference.

Democrats are sensing a bit of a political trap. The majority leader promised an open-ended process. Let the best plan win. Yet, the same majority leader says the only plan that can win is the President's.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: They're stalling. Why? Because they know no matter how long they spend in closed-door negotiations, they can't change the fact that the President has spelled out a fair and generous framework that will be necessary to earn his signature. These guys can't take yes for an answer.


KING: CNN's Phil Mattingly is our choice free-wheeling Phil to cover the free-wheeling debate up on Capitol Hill. Live with the latest.

Phil, let me just get to the bottom line. Is there a proposal that exists, the President's or otherwise, that can get to the magic 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In a word, no, at least not yet. You talk about the President's proposal, which has turned into legislative text by Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator John Cornyn. That is hovering right around 50 votes, maybe it'll lose a couple Republicans, maybe picks up a Democrat or two from a red state. That clearly has no path forward.

There's another bipartisan bill out there from Senator Chris Coons and Senator John McCain. That clearly can't get 60 votes. The one kind of I think ray of hope the Democrats are clinging to right now is that bipartisan proposal that Senator Flake was talking about.

[15:35:01] Obviously, they've been working on that for weeks, trying to get it to the forefront, trying to get Republicans and Democrats to agree on what's a very, very complex issue. We are told the text of that proposal will be released today. That is probably the best shot for 60 votes, but John, you laid out the key issue here. This isn't just what can get 60 votes in the United States Senate. This is what can move forward in the House. This is what the President is willing to sign.

I think the interesting element here is when you talk to Democratic aides that are involved in this, they make the point that, look, if we get something across the finish line, the President wants to deal with this issue, he'll figure out a way to get behind it. Well, that President and his team over the course of today have been working behind the scenes to basically beat back any Democratic amendment. They've been sending out opposition memos on bipartisan amendments we've seen up to this point.

They've shown no indication that they're willing to walk away or walk back from their four-pillar plan that they have out there. What's going to change where the President is right now, because the key point here is for anything the Senate moves on to have any future in the House, the President doesn't just have to say, OK, the President has to get behind it and push it. Short of that, there's no clear pathway right now, which means right now there's more questions than there are answers, John.

KING: And quickly, Phil, on this question, forget the hundred senators for a minute. Think about the eight or ten Democrats who might be in peril in this election year running for reelection. Do they sense a bit of a trap, that the Republicans are going to try to get them to vote, cast some votes on some amendments that might show up in campaign ads?

MATTINGLY: Yes, they don't sense it, they know it. There's already a vote that's out there right now from Senator Pat Toomey related to sanctuary cities. You have already got a couple Democrats right now who are in a tough spot with the President's proposal right now because it addresses DACA and because it addresses border security, family migration, those types of things.

You're going to see those senators face very, very difficult votes at this point and sometime soon. Nobody likes this debate, and that kind of crew of ten senators, they know that.

I think Democrats are confident that they can keep their members together enough to stop any amendments or anything moving forward that they don't like. But the reality is this is what the NRSD is very happy about right now. There's going to be difficult votes for these senators to take, and that's why Senator McConnell is not mad that this is, as he said, the free-wheeling debate that he promised.

KING: Yes, his definition of free-wheeling. Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, thanks. I'll call you that, it's a long time while watching this debate on Capitol Hill. You know, Leader McConnell very well. There's gambling in the casino and politics in the Senate. Shock.

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: This is the worst first free-wheeling debate ever on the Senate floor. I mean, you know, the big question was does the Senate know how to have debates anymore? I think we know the answer to this.

The Democrats are also wondering, where is that nice Senator McConnell who last week helped us back up the trucks to the federal treasury and empty it out? He was really a good guy on that deal. I mean, I think that they were naive going into this if they thought Mitch McConnell did not have some game plan going forward that was bad for them, and he's caught them.

But I still say, yes, the Democrats are going to have to take some tough votes, but, yes, this votes is that would make the Republicans take some tough votes. But take some votes. This actually been kind of embarrassing the way --

KING: Right. They promised this free-wheeling debate where everybody could offer their amendments. Everybody's in private meetings because they're afraid to offer their amendments. As Phil said some of them will come up.

Listen to the Democratic leader here because it appears, shocking in Washington, I know that all of you are watching around the country. Right now, there's no compromise in sight, there's no plan to get enough votes in sight. So the political positioning begins. If this collapses, the deadline comes, maybe some of these DREAMers are being deported. Democrats say that's the President's fault.

You heard Leader McConnell saying, no, the President offered you a compromise. Yes, he got to give some but you're going to get some. It will be your fault. Here's the Democratic leader's take.


SEN CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: If at the end of this week we are unable to find a bill that can pass, I sincerely hope that's not the case due to the good efforts of so many people on both sides of the aisle, the responsibility will fall on the President's shoulders and those in this body who went along with him.


KING: When the blame game starts before they start voting, it kind of signals that they don't think they're getting anywhere, right?

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, BLOOMBERG: This is why free-wheeling debates don't happen in the Senate anymore. There's always somebody who wants to make a point and cut some campaign ads. And the issue of sanctuary cities is a political trap for Democrats. It makes them look like they don't care about enforcement, while they're base strongest support is sanctuary cities, and they're on the wrong side of public opinion on that, unlike many other issues on immigration where they are on the right side of it.

The puzzle I see in the Senate right now is not about DACA, it's not about border security. The two sides agree on that. You can probably get 90 votes for that, the problem is legal immigration. Cuts to family based immigration, sibling sponsorships, parents-adult, adult- children, and the diversity visa lottery.

I don't see how you can get 60 votes with that. I don't see how you can get 60 votes without that unless the President, unless Mitch McConnell get behind something where there's a sweet spot in the Senate to do DACA for the wall, DACA for border security. If anything passes it'll look like that, but I don't see it.

KING: And meanwhile, over in the House, where this issue is even more complicated than it is in the Senate, and it's very, very complicated in the Senate, the House Speaker Paul Ryan says don't ask me any questions right now, I'm watching the Senate.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: At the end of the day, we want to have a solution. We'll see what the Senate does this week. Frankly, I have no idea what the Senate is going to produce this week. And we'll also have the President engaged to make sure that we have something that if it lands on his desk, he's going to sign it and that's very important.


[12:40: 05] KING: It's a bit of a punt and maybe they won't make me do this after all because of a lot class in the Senate. Wouldn't that be nice?

MARY KATHERINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: Yes, I mentioned back during the shutdown that I was mystified that Democrats thoughts this was a great ideas to get themselves all on the record about a bunch of immigration things that they're on the wrong side of the American public on. They're on the right side when it comes to DACA but not a lot of other things. So there -- this is coming to fruition.

I do think there's a -- I don't know if you probably know about this, but there's a chance that you could get a Goldilocks bill. Like McCain is too light, the President's four-pillar is too much, but there the skinny idea that you could maybe get 60 votes for the House. Ryan has pulled some rabbits out of his hat. That being said, this is Congress and Goldilocks will probably get mauled by bears and then no one ever lived happily ever after. But like --

KING: We're going to save the tape on that and we'll come back to it when we get to some actual votes.

Up next, out of pocket, and under scrutiny. President Trump's personal lawyer now admits he paid more than $100,000 out of his own money, he says out of the goodness of his heart to a porn star, just weeks before the election. He says he's done, nothing wrong.


[12:45:30] KING: Time to check some other stories on our political radar today. President Trump's long-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen insisting he didn't break any campaign finance laws when he paid $130,000 to a porn star, Mr. Trump allegedly had an affair with more than a decade ago.

Cohen says he paid with his own money and he told The New York Times, "Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford and neither reimbursed me for the payment either directly or indirectly." Mr. Cohen would not say why he wrote that check to her just days before the 2016 election.

The Veteran Affair Secretary David Shulkin today the latest cabinet member facing tough questions over his travel expenses. The V.A. inspector general says Shulkin's chief of staff altered an e-mail that led the department to pay for Shulkin's wife's expenses during a trip to Europe last year. It also says the secretary improperly accepted tickets to Wimbledon and directed an employee to plan leisure activities for him and for his wife. Shulkin blasted that report as, "a direct assault on my character." He denies any wrongdoing.

And Senator Tammy Duckworth has a unique problem. How should a sitting senator having a baby handle maternity leave? It's literally never come up before. The Illinois Democrat the first to be expecting a child while in office.


SEN TAMMY DUCKWORTH, (D) ILLINOIS: It's going to change some Senate rules because I'm going to make sure it changes some Senate rules. For example, you're not allowed to bring children on to the floor of the Senate to -- at all. And so if I have to vote and I'm breastfeeding my child, especially during my maternity leave period, what do I do, leave her sitting outside? I can't leave her with a staff member. That's a conflict of interest.

So am I not allowed to vote? Can I not do my job? What are some of the requirements there? And I'm even being told right now that I can't technically take maternity leave because if I take maternity leave then I won't be allowed to sponsor legislation or vote during that time period.


KING: Time for the Senate to figure out how to fix all that. Senator Duckworth is expecting a girl due in late April. We wish her the best there. And we hope she figures this out.

Let's come back to the story about secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin. The latest Trump Cabinet member to face questions about high-price travel, taxpayers paying for things that's got approved at the EPA thinking that the Interior Department and some others, but these particular allegations the I.G. report today that they essentially doctored an e-mail to justify the wife's expenses. Problem?

HULSE: What's with this administration and the travel? I mean, there's been so many instances of this the first-class travel, the use of the military jets, and now this. I think this is actually very damaging, John, you know in the context of Washington. Once you start to manipulate things to make it look like you didn't do that when you did, it's bad. I think this looks bad.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, and there's a cultural issue. And I don't know the specific facts surrounding what the Secretary Shulkin is alleged to have done. And then so I don't want to gloss over what appears to be an attempt at a cover-up, but there is a cultural issue with this administration. And it seems that nothing is impermissible for folks who work in the White House, for folks who work in the agencies.

There doesn't seem to be a lot of instances that we're aware of when publicly or privately someone says this is -- you've crossed a line and we can't tolerate that. And this is the kind of thing that can happen when you have Cabinet secretaries, senior staff at the White House, senior staff at federal agencies who don't feel like there's any kind of consequence for doing something like there's nothing wrong with it.

HAM: As I said there's also a cultural issue at the V.A., which has among the more -- among the most sacred jobs of our federal government, one of the more infuriating areas where they've just cannot get their stuff straight over there. And it's been a disaster for a long time.

KING: A penny wasted anywhere in the government is wrong, but a penny wasted at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I would agree with your point may be especially wrong. We'll keep on track of this one as well.

Up next, Capitol Hill mired in gridlock. More members of congress are saying they've had enough.


[12:53:34] KING: Today, probe positive, honesty is a side effect of retirement. Congressman Trey Gowdy, a hero to Conservative and a demon to Liberals for his handling of the House Benghazi investigation, isn't running for re-election this year, and he's not shy in making clear he thinks Congress is broken, even worse.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I like jobs where facts matter. I like jobs where fairness matters. I like jobs frankly where the process matters. And it's not just about winning and it's not just about reaching a result.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: And so facts don't matter in Congress?

GOWDY: I think what matters in Congress is finding a group and then validating or ratifying what they already believe.


KING: That's actually kind of sad. It's actually kind of sad from a guy, I remember when he came to Congress. He used a straight shooter than the Benghazi thing sort of put him into a polarization world of silos we all live in. But there he says, I'm going home. I don't like here, facts don't matter. You find your tribe and you just say whatever your tribe wants you to say.

HULSE: Well, I don't think he has totally clean hands on this because of Benghazi obviously. I also think -- I think he has been a frustrated member of Congress, and there's a lot of them who are. But it's also -- and I've talked to Republicans, it's not that fun looking down the road and you might be in the minority, and you might not be the chairman or the committee chairman anymore. So, I do think that figures into it and people find religion a little bit on the way out about how bad things are after they've had their run.


[12:55:001] KAPUR: Many people are retiring and Gowdy is not wrong that, you know, facts are not really valued as much in Congress as persuadable voters around the country shrink, it was as many as about a third in the 1990 (INAUDIBLE) shrunk. You know, the voters that people usually seek after and try to win --

KING: I got to interrupt you, the vice president being asked about Rob Porter. Let's listen.


MIKE ALLEN, AXIOS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: No tolerance in this White House and no place in America for domestic abuse. You said when I return to Washington, I'm going to look into the matter. What have you found?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, this administration has no tolerance for domestic violence, nor should any American. And as I said, and as the White House has said, I think the White House could have handled this better. I still feel that way. That being said, any more counsel I have on this, I'll share with the President of the United States.

ALLEN: Are you 100 percent confident that General Kelly has been fully honest and transparent in his explanation of Rob Porter's departure?

PENCE: There are very few Americans or American families that have served this nation more honorably or sacrificed more for this country than the family of General John Kelly. John Kelly's service in uniform, his distinguished service at our Department of Homeland Security where we saw a dramatic reduction of illegal crossings at our southern border, and his distinguished service as Chief of Staff gives me and the President great confidence in this good man. And I want the American people to know, not just John Kelly but family members in uniform here and gone have served this nation with a love and patriotism and a passion that should inspire us all.

ALLEN: So it sounds like you think he should stay.

PENCE: John Kelly has done a remarkable job as Chief of Staff for President of the United States. And I look forward to continuing to work with him for many, many months to come. ALLEN: And your one -- you did a lot of overseas travel on behalf of the President. This year you plan an aggressive midterm campaign schedule. You're off to the great state of Texas?


KING: You've been listening to the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, being interviewed by Mike Allen of "Axios" there. He said that the White House could have done a better job handling the Rob Porter saga, scandal. He said that he believes the President still has full confidence in John Kelly. He talked very favorably of John Kelly.

Interestingly, he said he has condemned domestic abuse, the White House has condemned domestic abuse. I will come back to the issue, the President has not personally condemned domestic abuse. What do we make in what we've just heard there from the vice-president?

DAVIS: Well, I thought it was notable what he did not say. The question was did he believe that John Kelly had been fully forthcoming and honest about what happened when and he avoided answering that because he probably doesn't know or maybe he does know and doesn't want to say. And he said he would share his counsel privately with the president.

He also said that he looks forward to serving with John Kelly in the months to come. I don't know how many months he means or certainly wasn't a complete, you know, John Kelly is here to stay that seat, end of story.

KING: It was not Pence very careful and cautious.

DAVIS: Absolutely. And he clearly -- when he said that he still, is not satisfied with the way this has been handled, not just that he was when this happened, still isn't, that's an indication that he is -- he feels like they've really dropped the ball here in some way, either before or after the allegations became public. And we know that he was one of the ones who is most critical internally of Donald Trump when the "Access Hollywood" tape came out. I'm sure he's not happy about the situation.

KAPUR: Worded carefully enough that he's not taking a position publicly on whether Kelly should stay or go. And that was a strong statement against domestic violence. The White House has no tolerance for that, so is the Vice President. Everybody in the White House seems to think that the President himself publicly.

HAM: Well, it's a perfect example of -- Pence is a traditional political figure, right? And if you take what he said today and give it to the President to say eight days ago, you have a very different situation now.

KING: Right. Right.

HAM: And he will not -- he will not act that way. KING: Right. Even in the President's Friday statement where he wished Rob Porter well, served at the White House, you can wish him well despite the allegations. If you say, but I have great empathy, great concern for the women involved here and for all victims of domestic abuse, this is an issue we need to take seriously, and if the White House didn't take it seriously enough, we will get the message. Could have done it -- could have done it all, that's been sounds in that regard.

HULSE: Well, it so tot reminds me of the Charlottesville situation where people expected the President to come out and say some, and he just seems to have this innate resistance to once this happens that he is -- you're not going to force me to do that and I'm not going to do it. And I get the same feeling this time.

Obviously, Vice President Pence, they prepared for this question. They knew it was going to come. For him, it was an actual criticism of the White House. So, that was new but I don't think this gets the job done like you said. I mean, the President himself needs to.

KING: President himself to do it and if he feels he's being pushed into it, maybe he should consider it would help him perhaps. Thanks for joining us the INSIDE POLITICS. See you back here this time tomorrow. Wolf Blitzer starts right now.